CNMI media and politics, 28 years ago
Saipan — Twenty-eight years ago, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands had — compared to what it has now — a growing economy. And several media outlets. We had two cable TV news stations, three radio news stations, two magazines, and several newspapers besides Marianas Variety (which opened shop in March 1972). These included PDN’s Focus, Saipan Tribune (then owned by Larry Hillblom), Marianas Review, Saipan-Guam Balita (News), Pacific Chronicle, Voices, Pacific Star and the Marianas Observer or MO.
I was the MO’s first and last managing editor (and all-around reporter and newspaper delivery man). It was a weekly newspaper like the rest except for five-days-a-week Variety. The Observer’s first issue came out in February 1994, and it died a “natural death” in January 1996. (We went belly up.)
Recently, I was at the CNMI Archives of Northern Marianas College to see, for the first time in so many years, the actual copies of the Observer. Clearly, the mid-1990s were fun times for CNMI reporters and editorial writers.
The major news stories were, more or less, about the same issues the CNMI is trying to resolve today: lack of funding, mounting obligations, workforce issues, federal relations, political squabbling.
Here, for example, was how the MO reported on how lawmakers passed the fiscal year 1995 budget: “After a series of [events that marked] the most serious political upheaval in the House of Representatives that saw party mates switching sides and accusing each other of deceit and corruption…, the administration’s budget proposal was approved [during] a midnight session….”
Meanwhile, on its editorial page, the MO mocked the Attorney General’s Office for prosecuting a garment worker who, police said, filched a beach towel she used at a hotel swimming pool.
The editorial’s title was “Hurrah” and it began with the following epigraph: “Terrorists hijacked an airliner full of lawyers on their way to a convention. They threatened that unless their demands were met, they would begin releasing one lawyer every hour. — An anonymous (for pretty obvious reasons) lawyer joke.”
According to the editorial, “In certainly one of the greatest legal triumphs ever recorded in the annals of CNMI judicial history,” the AG’s office, “saw through the conviction of [a] notorious towel thief…. And what if the entire legal proceedings…cost the government a lot more than the retail price of the…towel? … Absurdity in the defense of law is not a vice….”
In Washington, D.C., a member of the new Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives had introduced legislation to extend federal minimum wage and immigration laws to the CNMI. True to form, CNMI politicians blamed each other for their failure to “address federal concerns.
On Saipan’s Capital — not Capitol — Hill, the Democratic governor and a Democratic senator had resorted to name-calling over the casino issue. The governor wanted a casino on Saipan, but the senator, who was from Tinian where casino was legal, said no way. The governor said the senator could “go to hell.” The senator told the governor to “kiss my ass.”
Says the MO’s editorial: “[W]e are all aware of our politicians’ talent for kissing babies and the elderly, but…certainly not of derrieres, however fleshy and senatorial…. Politicians have unsavory enough reputations to need further proof of it.”
Back then, some reporters ended up in the news themselves. One such occasion was when the then-governor walked out of his press conference after two cable TV news reporters repeatedly “grilled” him like a hostile witness in a Perry Mason episode.
“Media ethics, wags say, is yet another oxymoron like ‘military intelligence,’” the MO editorialized. “The wags may be right after all — at least until we members of the media imposed on ourselves the same level of decency, responsibility and respect that we always demand from our political leaders.”
Early in 1995, in his testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee, the CNMI’s then-chief executive, Froilan C. Tenorio, said something that, quite possibly, was never uttered before by any territorial governor. He said no to “free money” from Uncle Sam. “Federal subsidies do us more harm than good,” Tenorio said. They “perpetuate our dependence on the federal government and they come with too many federal strings attached.”
Keep your money, he told the U.S. lawmakers, but don’t take away local control over minimum wage and immigration. “Not so we can continue with business as usual,” he said, “but so we can institute the reforms that both of us want at the Commonwealth level, rather than from Washington.”
But Tenorio’s political opponents in the CNMI were not amused. One of them, a Republican lawmaker, said although he believed that the CNMI was on its way to becoming economically self-sufficient, “I don’t think it’s time already [to forego federal money].” Besides, he added, U.S. funding for the CNMI “does not make any dent on” the U.S. Treasury.
He also said that the FBI should investigate certain members of the CNMI House of Representatives for their “questionable” actions. He was referring to his colleagues who had voted for key measures supported by the governor.
Another Republican legislator said she, too, was speaking out “against corruption and deceptive practices in this legislature” because it was her “duty and responsibility to the voting public….”
Twenty-eight years ago.
Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.